Deadly Superbugs Look Unstoppable
Health officials issue 'triple-threat' alarm
by Liz Szabo and Peter Eisler
USA Today, March 6, 2013
Reprinted with permission

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A family of “nightmare” superbugs – untreatable and often deadly – is spreading through hospitals across the USA, and doctors fear that it may soon be too late to stop them, senior health officials said Tuesday.

“These are nightmare bacteria that present a triple threat,” said Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease control and Prevention.  “They’re resistant to nearly all anti-biotics.  They have high mortality rates, killing half of people with serious infections.  And they can spread their resistance to other bacteria.”

So far, this particular class of superbugs, called carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE, has been found only in hospitals or nursing homes, Frieden said.

But officials warned that if the bacteria’s spread isn’t contained soon, even common infections could become untreatable.

The superbug tends to strike immune-compromised people who are hospitalized for a long time or living in a nursing home, Frieden said.  And CRE doesn’t spread easily from person to person, like the bacteria causing pink eye or strep throat.

These superbugs are “the biggest threat to patient safety in the hospital that we have,” said Costi Sifri, and infectious-disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at the University of Virginia Health System.  “Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like anything is slowing their spread.”

In 2001, only 1.2% of this family of bacteria were resistant to carbapenem antibiotics – the strongest class available.  By 2011, that figure had jumped to 4.2%. 

In November, USA TODAY reported that CRE infections are already endemic in several U.S. population centers, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Hospitals have fought these infections for years.

An outbreak of CRE killed seven patients between 2011 and 2012 at the National Institutes of Health.  Now, with the superbugs found in 42 states, Frieden said he felt it was time to warn the public.

The country has only a narrow “window of opportunity” to act before it’s too late to halt the superbugs’ spread, Frieden said.

Perhaps the greatest threat from CRE is its ability to share its resistance genes with other, more common bacteria, such as E. coli, he said.

If that happened, conditions affecting millions of Americans – such as diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory conditions and pneumonia – could become untreatable with antibiotics.

“It’s not very often that our scientists come to me and say, ‘We have a very serious problem, and we need to say something to save lives,’ but that is what is happening,” Fireden said.

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